Bankruptcy and scandal plagued the brilliant Wilde family

Week IV

Oscar Wilde (Right), as a young man,  taken from a shooting party outing on the steps of Ashford castle.

Oscar Wilde (Right), as a young man, taken from a shooting party outing on the steps of Ashford castle.

‘Westward Ho! Let us rise with the sun, and be off to the land of the west - to the lakes and streams - the grassy glens and fern-clad gorges - the bluff hills and rugged mountains - now cloud-capped, then revealed in azure, or bronzed by evening’s tints, as the light of day sinks into the bold swell of the Atlantic….’

So begins Sir William Wilde’s famous ‘Lough Corrib - Its Shores and Islands’ (published 1867 ), adorned with wonderful woodcuts, as he calls us all to join him as if in a bi-plane, to swoop and dive over its 200km of clear water, fed from rushing streams off the Connemara mountains, giving life to its foreshore and islands where people have lived since the dawn of time, fishing its shallows and its dark deeps; and where monks sought an earthly haven for prayer and solitude.

But its not on a biplane that Wilde leaves Dublin, and all his cares behind. But into a steaming and whistling locomotive puffing out from Broadstone station with its fearsome clattering and energy, into which he had piled his wife Jane and three children, their servants and maids, and as much baggage as they will need for the long summer holidays. They steamed across Ireland, noting every stop and ancient stone along the way, until eventually, with Dickensian excitement, they arrive at Galway, where they ‘emerge among the beggars into Eyre Square, surrounded by hotels, club-houses, banks, private residences, and coach offices’.

Jumping into a Bianconi coach (which averaged a satisfactory eight miles per hour ), the family familiarise themselves yet again with the sights and sounds of the ancient City of the Tribes, and pass ‘the handsome groups of blue-eyed, black-haired, bare-footed colleens with their graceful carriage, red petticoats, and blue and scarlet cloaks’. Fishermen stand holding out baskets with ‘shrimps jumping…where cockles are smacking their lips with the heat, where johndories are alive, and the lobsters are playing pitch and putt with the crabs…’ before they breathlessly arrive at Woodquay, and take the ‘Eglinton’ steamer to his holiday home, Moytura Lodge, just outside the village of Cong, on the lake’s northern shore.

As the lake unfolds before them, Sir William begins his fascinating and entertaining account of all that he can survey, his vast knowledge of old Ireland we can be sure was listened to in silence and awe.

Despite all the stresses and strains of his incredible work load, and the ordeal of the Travers’ libel trial, Sir William succeeded in building Moytura House, ‘a solid, well-planned porched villa with an eaved roof, without any pretentions to architectural distinction, but comfortable, and with sufficient accommodation for his family and holiday visitors, which enjoyed unequaled views of Lough Corrib, its islands and mountains.

He had previously built a fishing lodge at Illaunroe on Lough Fee, but Moytura would become his retreat from a wearying world, and where he would complete his Lough Corrib book, while entertaining visiting academics and friends. The location was also of significance as Wilde believed the mythological saga that on that very place the Tuatha De Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, arrived, and demanded half of Ireland from the ruling Fir Bolgs. The Firbolgs refused, and a fierce battle ensued.

To commemorate the event, the Firbolg erected the large cairn of stones at Ballymagibbon, two miles from Cong after the first day’s fighting. Each warrior carried a stone and the head of a slain enemy, and the first monument was built. The cairns covered stone passage-ways leading to a central chamber where the ashes of cremated warriors were deposited. There are five similar monuments that stood in a line across the ancient battlefield for a distance of five miles to the northwest. The battle lasted four days, during which the Firbolg king was slain, and the place he died is marked by the Cairn Eochai.

Neglected medical work

It is doubtful if Sir William believed this ancient legend to be true, but he was fascinated by the possibility, evidenced by the cairns (burial sites ), and stone circles that are plentiful in the Cong area. He enthusiastically showed them to visitors. He spent more and more time at Moytura House, neglecting his medical practice and duties at St Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, which he founded, enjoying instead the friendship of local scholars and the company of Benjamin Guinness at nearby Ashford. His widely acclaimed ‘Lough Corrib’, with its superb wood cuts by the antiquarian artist William FG Wakeman, was published 1867, three years after the Travers trial in Dublin.* It was an immediate best seller.

Died a bankrupt

That same year his beloved daughter Isola died of fever in her ninth year which devastated the family. Over the following years Wilde withdrew into himself, his health deteriorated, and he would spend long periods in bed. He died April 19 1876, and to the family’s initial disbelief (and to his wife’s inability to accept ), he died bankrupt.

In Terence de Vere White’s biography of Sir William and Lady ‘Speranza’ Wilde, he describes what a lady friend saw when she arrived at their Dublin home, number I Merrion Square. She found the property in the possession of bailiffs. ‘There were two strange men sitting in the hall, and I heard from the weeping servant that they were ‘men in possession’. I felt so sorry for poor Lady Wilde and hurried upstairs to the drawing-room where I knew I would find her. Sperenza was there indeed, but seemed not in the least troubled by the state of affairs in the house. I found her lying on the sofa reading ‘Prometheus Victus’ of Aeschylus, from which she began to declaim passages to me, with exalted enthusiasm. She would not let me slip in a word of condolence, but seemed very anxious that I should share her entire admiration for the beauties of the Greek tragedian which she was reciting...’

London life

Undaunted, Lady Wilde followed her sons to London, and for a time earned her keep completing some unfinished works of her late husband, and contributing stories to magazines. She wrote several books and articles on Irish folklore and legends, and took an interest in Irish emigrants to America, impressively foreseeing the vital role the Irish would play in American life.

She endeavoured to keep up appearances by rekindling her literary salon at her home at Chelsea. Invitations to her salon in Dublin, which had attracted such luminaries as the writer William Carleton, the poet Aubrey de Vere, the brilliant barrister and poet Samuel Ferguson, the classical scholar JP Mahaffy, the politician TD Sullivan and others, were much sought after.

But in London the attendees came more from curiosity than for enlightenment. Her dwindling financial resources, however, led to poverty when financial assistance from her son Oscar ended with his imprisonment and bankruptcy. Her eldest son Willie, a drunkard, was briefly married, and shared his mother’s decline.

Foolishly advised

Oscar, for a time, enjoyed a brilliant life style. A playwright of hilarious satirical tales, he wrote charming children’s stories, and sometimes sentimental prose. His books and plays are still read and enjoyed today.

He married the beautiful Constance Mary Lloyd, also an Irish writer of children’s stories, who adored her husband. They had two sons Cyril and Vivian (whose mother later changed their surnames to Holland, and lived in Switzerland, to avoid the paparazzi who pursued her for lurid tales of her husband )**

At the height of Oscar’s fame, in April 1895, he was foolishly advised to pursue for libel the Marquess of Queensberry, who intimated that he was having a homosexual relationship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas.

The libel case collapsed, and instead Wilde was prosecuted for homosexuality. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Owen Dudley-Edwards (Dictionary of Irish Biography ) writes that Wilde’s neglect of his wife and children during his years of infatuation with Douglas was much the most serious moral offence he had committed.

On February 3 1896, Constance came to the prison to break the news that his mother had died. It was their last meeting. She herself died of a spinal disease two years later.***

Oscar died destitute in Paris November 30 1900. His faithful friend Robbie Ross (whose initials are on the famous ‘Autograph Tree’ at Coole park ) made every effort to collect the royalties owed on Wilde’s writings. Publishers and theatres were slow to pay. Some just did not bother. At the time of his arrest two of his plays, ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’, were playing to packed audiences in London. Towards the end Oscar would try to cadge money from British visitors, a necessary task he found totally humiliating. Oscar is survived by his only grandchild Merlin Holland.

In Sir William Wilde’s Lough Corrib, page 259, there is one mention of his son Oscar. One August day 1866, accompanied by the artist William FG Wakeman, ‘the author and his son Oscar’ (12 years old at the time ) share a puzzle over what to call a church-like building, which had no name. Those were happy days together.

NOTES: *Wilde had previously written extensively on ‘The Beauties of the Boyne’, and was a regular contributor to the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, and other journals.

** Vivian later adopted his name as Vyvyan Holland, and wrote an autobiography Son of Oscar Wilde, published 1954. His brother Cyril died in World War I.

*** In 1999 a monument, paid for by the Oscar Wilde Society, in the form of a Celtic Cross, was erected over Lady Wilde’s unmarked grave at Kensal Green Cemetery. Sir William is buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. Oscar is buried at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris, under a sculpture of a flying angel by Jacob Epstein. Robbie Ross’s ashes also rest in the tomb.

At Sir William’s time, however, research into our ancient past was in its infancy. Despite Wilde’s academic and scholarly approach, which he had displayed with bravura energy at the National Museum, where he was acknowledged as one of Ireland’s foremost authorities in antiquarian research, 60 years later some of his linguistic knowledge was all to be questioned. In 1936 Colm Ó Lochlainn, founder of The Three Candles press (each candle representing Truth, Nature, and Knowledge ) a great printer, publisher and Gaelic scholar, decided to reprint Wilde’s best selling history of Loch Coirib (note Ó Lochlainn’s spelling ), but to ‘reform’ Wilde’s ’spelling and elucidation’ of place names.

In his stimulating preface, he agrees that in a book which holds so much of sound history and archaeology, ‘we must permit the good author to indulge in occasional flights of fancy.’ But Ó Lochlainn confesses that it is doubtful ‘if we can ever undo the mischief wrought by the name-coiners of the ordnance survey in the 1830s, anglicised so many Irish place names.

The great Corribman, Kevin Duffy of Headford, republished a version of Wilde’s Lough Corrib available at all Galway bookshops. 

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